The Green Mile Not the Usual King Fare

Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Bonnie Hunt, Graham Greene, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Frank Darabont. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 188 minutes (dual-layer). 1999. Warner Home Video C2579. R. $24.98.

Death-row prison guard Paul Edgecomb presides over a motley crew of condemned prisoners on The Green Mile, a cell block named for the color of its tile floor. The newest addition, a huge black man named John Coffey (like the drink, only spelled different, as Coffey often says), is the mildest-mannered of prisoners, seemingly incapable of the violent act for which he was sentenced to death. His story, the strange powers he seems to possess, and how both affect those around him, are the subjects of this film. But The Green Mile is not so much about plot as about the characters, human and otherwise, who inhabit the grim environments on both sides of the prison bars.

Criticized by many for its length, The Green Mile nevertheless held my attention for its three-hours-plus running time. It is a tale full of surprises, with every character fully realized by both the script and the totally accomplished performances—particularly from Tom Hanks (big surprise) as Edgecomb and Michael Clarke Duncan as Coffey, in a fine effort that was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The film is adapted from a Stephen King novel, but that author's usual touch is felt only occasionally—lightly in the fantasy elements, and more heavy-handedly in three electrocutions, one of which is unusually extended and horrific. (If you're squeamish, it's not hard to figure out when it's coming.) This execution could have been shortened and still have made its point. But that segment—perhaps no longer than two minutes but feeling more like 15—is the closest the film comes to a standard Stephen King moment.

It's inevitable that comparisons be made to director Frank Darabont's only other film, The Shawshank Redemption, also based on a King tale set in a prison. Shawshank is a little more tightly scripted and even less King-like than The Green Mile, but the plots are quite different. If I had to choose one, it would be Shawshank, but The Green Mile doesn't come up short by much.

The extras on this DVD are unusually sparse for such a major release. There is a 10-minute "making of" documentary, a trailer, and the usual still-frames with cast and crew information. There's only a single soundtrack, and no commentaries. I wouldn't be surprised to see a special edition of this exceptional film at a later date, though none is scheduled at present.

The transfers of the anamorphic video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio are nothing short of stunning. Like all DVD producers, Warners has good days and not-so-good days, though thankfully, its few bad days are reserved for bargain-basement pan&scan releases. The Green Mile was definitely authored on a day when everyone involved got up on the right side of the bed. DVD video doesn't get any better than this: smoothly filmlike, full of natural detail without visible edge enhancement, outstanding black-level detail, and first-rate color. It's one of those DVDs that make you wonder if hi-def can really do any better, even on a big-screen home-projection system. (Actually, it can, but you still wonder.)

The soundtrack is just as amazing. There are few explosive moments—this isn't that kind of film—but the sound is nevertheless surprisingly spacious and dimensional. The highs are perfectly balanced (I felt no need to use cinema equalization), the dialogue rich and natural, and the bass, where used, is startling. Thomas Newman's fine score provides many of the audio thrills here, and it, too, is beautifully recorded.

Don't miss The Green Mile. If you file your DVDs in order of quality, save a space on the top shelf, over on the left.